Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Kayaker's voyage of self (rescue) discovery

1/6/14 update: Kathi's heel hook video has almost 18,000 hits on YouTube. 

It’s the dirty little secret of sea kayaking. And Kathi Morrison has exposed it. Nah, she’s not working for the Brit tabloids. But Kathi’s making waves in Northern California kayaking circles with a self-rescue technique that gives paddlers a new and easier way to get back into their kayaks after a spill.

Kathi Morrison does a "dry run" demo -- see video links below

Here’s the story. Kathi and husband Chris, who live on a ranch in San Joaquin County, became serious kayakers only two years ago. Kathi liked paddling but felt limited because she lacked the upper body strength to do the traditional paddle float self-rescue that has been the standard for many moons. Then, last February, she saw an article in “Sea Kayaker” magazine that presented an alternative – the heel hook self-rescue.

Among other tips, Kathi showed best way to be towed (Photo by Gail Cho)

She and Chris took to the water – remember, this was winter – and she quickly mastered the technique. She was ecstatic. Then Chris shot a video of her to prove how easy it could be. Then they tipped “Sea Kayaker,” which picked their video up on YouTube. Then it went viral by kayaking standards – more than 4,400 hits to date.

And the dirty little secret? “I had never realized how many people really don’t know how to self-rescue,” Kathi told NorCal Yak. “Everbody talks about doing self-rescue, but it turns out that a lot of people really don’t know how.”

Especially women, whose upper bodies aren’t always of a shape (muscle-wise and otherwise) that allows them to easily flop chest first onto a kayak deck.  “Women will talk about it, but men won’t…The funny thing is, it started out to be women, but then guys took me aside and told me they wanted to learn it too,” said Kathi. Oh yeah. In my experience with the traditional self-rescue, getting up on deck was not impossible – but trying not to flip the boat again while doing a backward shimmy into the cockpit? Tricky, even in a calm pool.   

Like the traditional self-rescue, the heel hook uses a paddle float, but it simplifies the rest of the maneuver. Kathi and Chris can now do it in about 12 seconds after inflating the paddle float and securing the paddle on deck. 

Here’s the YouTube video that Chris shot of Kathi last winter, now being actively promoted by “Sea Kayaker” and others on the Web.

And here’s a NorCal Yak video of Kathi helping a small group of us during a paddle at Rancho Seco lake, near Lodi, last Sunday. The upside of my amateur “dry run” video is that you can follow the moves a bit more easily on land. (The downside is that we were within earshot of a wedding, a family reunion with polka music, and assorted picnic groups.)

While Kathi didn’t invent the heel hook, she readily acknowledged that it has become her “cause.” Especially as a self-described  “ample person” who wants to help other paddlers become more self-confident, even if they have some physical limitations.  

“It’s really life-changing,” she said. “My cause is to help anyone who wants to become a complete sea kayaker.” And perhaps prevent a tragic situation in the bargain.

“Here’s the scenario,” said Kathi. “There are times when you’re out kayaking when more than one person may be dumped out of their boat. You want to be in a situation where you know someone who can take care of themselves, so that you can assist that other person who may need more help…It’s life-changing because I know that I can help other people, not just worry about myself.”

Safety detail: Tightly secure that float and pump
Kathi and her husband Chris are the most safety-conscious kayakers I've met. As they explain it, safety drills such as self-rescues (they urge practice sessions on every outing) aren't drudgery. Safety is the means to an end -- being able to paddle in more adventurous situations because you're well-prepared to do so, and confident enough to enjoy the experience.

Constant practice has also made the Morrisons excellent teachers.  At our informal session, they put our group of four into shallow water and had us oriented to the heel hook within a matter of minutes. They also knew how to tweak the maneuvers a bit to help each of us feel more comfortable, rather than the “you-must-do-it-exactly-like-me” routine. And we all agreed that it changed our paddling lives for the better.

(Kathi notes that her own certified safety instructor now teaches the heel hook self-rescue, and other certified instructors are also adopting the method, along with heel hook assisted rescues. Contact the Morrisons at cmorrison@clearwire.net)